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A Violinist of Uncommon Style

Sheryl Staples has shunned the usual route to virtuosic stardom to become a complete package: concertmaster, ensemble player, soloist and teacher.

November 08, 1998|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A common career trajectory for the most talented, determined and lucky young American violinists arcs through competitions and prestigious Eastern conservatories, heading single-mindedly for solo glory.

Local hero Sheryl Staples, however, has emphasized orchestral work rather than competitions, and has resisted Eastern temptations until her rising progression of ensemble leadership positions took her to the Cleveland Orchestra and now the New York Philharmonic, and increasingly into the solo spotlight.

It's a path that has also brought her back to Los Angeles--this afternoon, opening the new Gold Series of alumni recitals at the Colburn School--as a complete violinist: concertmaster, concerto artist, recitalist, chamber musician and teacher.

"As a teenager I was fascinated with ensemble playing, in all sizes of groups," Staples reports from her new home in New York, where she is principal associate concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. "I love orchestral music, and I appreciate the regularity of orchestral schedules and being part of an established organization."

Of course, Staples' view of the orchestra comes from the front. Locally, Staples has been concertmaster of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, the Japan America Symphony and the Pacific Symphony. In 1996 she became associate concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, a post she held through the end of August, which gave her just two weeks to move to New York to start the season there.

"I'm addicted to the leadership positions," she acknowledges. "I don't doubt it would be harder to sit back in sections. It feels really natural to me, to lead in this way, to draw upon my training as a soloist to make the concertmaster's solos special, which is a skill in itself, to make it really come across.

"I love the interaction among the musicians. Sitting in the first chair, you are a bridge between the conductor and the musicians. To contribute like that in a nonverbal way is fascinating and exciting. Although it can be difficult to juggle both solo work and an orchestra, it was never really a question for me."

Staples, who grew up in Los Angeles, came to the violin naturally enough. Both her parents were musicians--her dad played trombone on the Lawrence Welk TV show, freelanced and taught at UCLA; her mother was an amateur pianist and flutist. When Sheryl was 5, she discovered a one-eighth-sized violin that belonged to an aunt. At 9, she made the decisive move to study with master pedagogue Robert Lipsett, eventually following him to the Colburn School for the Performing Arts for three years and from there to USC.

"I'm so proud of her and all she has accomplished," Lipsett says. "Some kids are shooting stars who reach their potential early and then go nowhere. All of Sheryl's gifts continued to develop, and we just kept getting things done.

"Some students make you a better teacher, and if you are successful with them, you make yourself obsolete. Sheryl can certainly stand on her own now, and it has been a pleasure to watch her talents unfolding."

Staples credits the Colburn School--which provides all manner of performing arts instruction as an after-hours adjunct to its students' regular schooling--with a foundational impact on her career. "It is about the classiest organization you can imagine; they don't take shortcuts there. I took just about everything the Colburn School had to offer," Staples, now 29, recalls, "from music theory and ear training to chamber music, as well as my private lessons."

After she graduated from USC, she turned her experience at Colburn around and taught there for five years, until getting the call from Cleveland. "I came full circle at Colburn," Staples says, "which was a wonderful thing."

In her years there, Colburn was housed in a former warehouse near USC, but this summer, it abandoned its old warren of rooms for spacious new quarters along the Grand Avenue arts corridor. But as Lipsett puts it, "Walls do not make a school. This was a great school before the new building."

The new Colburn Gold Series clearly demonstrates that. Following Staples on the series is violinist Leila Josefowicz--another Lipsett student; pianist Max Levinson; violinist Anne Akiko Meyers; pianist Wendy Chen; and violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama. Other Colburn alumni range from super-maestro Michael Tilson Thomas to jazz pianist Patrice Rushen.

But though walls may not make the school, they certainly can make the teacher's life easier, particularly if they enclose a performance space such as the 420-seat Zipper Concert Hall.

"One of the frustrations I've had," Lipsett says, "is that as a teacher you want to be in a small space for really critical listening, but then before a concert you want to be in a large space and work on a stage. This is an immediate improvement, because for the first time, we can go from my studio directly to the hall.

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